Stockmanship Skills Related to Animal Health and Welfare

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Source: National Farm Animal Care Council

Code of Practice for the care and handling of farm animals – Dairy Cattle, Section 3.2

Management practices used on dairy farms are known to have a significant impact upon animal health, animal welfare, and milk quality. It is understood that certain best management practices (e.g., teat dipping to reduce somatic cell counts) are important for maintaining animal health. However, how well those best management practices are implemented is of equal importance.

Attributes identified that contribute to the effective implementation of best management practice include:

  • positive attitude of producers and farm employees toward milking and the animals
  • detail oriented (e.g., good record keeping, knowledge of individual animals) (42).

Human-animal interactions affect the productivity and welfare of dairy cattle (45). Not only is the technical competence of animal handlers important but also the way in which they interact with cattle. A negative belief about cows increases the likelihood of aversive handling, which results in a fearful animal. Fear leads to stress, reduced welfare, and reduced productivity (57).

Differences between the level of productivity and welfare of dairy cattle on farms may partially be explained by differences in how animals are handled:

  • cattle with insufficient human contact will exhibit fear of humans
  • gentle handling of young animals will habituate them to humans and reduce fearfulness in adulthood
  • hitting, shouting, tail twisting, electric prods and kicking are aversive to cattle (58).

Aversive procedures may at times be necessary (e.g., injections). Animal handlers can avoid this leading to a learned fear of humans by ensuring that a sound foundation of positive contacts has been established (60).

Identifying what cattle perceive as positive interactions is more challenging. Brushing, patting, and speaking in a gentle voice may not be rewarding to cows unless these actions are associated with something cattle find inherently rewarding (e.g., food, head scratching) (59).

Fear of humans is an important factor affecting milk yield in cows (45). Making handlers aware of the negative effects of poor handling, along with providing them with the information and tools they need to do a good job, can increase job satisfaction and performance (61).

People that effectively use low-stress cattle-handling techniques will reduce the detrimental effects of handling stress on animal performance and health, due to fear (44).

RECOMMENDED BEST PRACTICES

  1. have best management practices in place
  2. ensure farm staff are trained in, and apply, best management practices
  3. ensure cow health is monitored regularly
  4. ensure that the interactions that calves and younger cattle have with people are rewarding rather than aversive
  5. avoid behaviors that cattle find aversive (e.g., hitting, shouting, aggressive tail twisting, electric prods and kicking)
  6. ensure animal handlers understand the behavioral principles of animal handling and understand how their attitudes and behavior impact dairy cattle welfare and productivity
  7. ensure equipment, holding, and handling facilities are in place and in good working order
  8. train animal handlers in low-stress cattle handling techniques.